BBC Music Magazine
Brian Wise looks at how musicians across the world faced up to the challenges of the 1918 pandemic
COVID-19'S effect on classical music has led to comparisons with spanish flu, the deadly, 1918 pandemic that severely challenged musicians, says Brian Wise
It was October 1918 and Stravinsky was lying under a heap of blankets, his teeth chattering and beret pulled down over his face. As his wife Katya staggered about their house dispensing medications to the composer and his two sick children, he bemoaned the cancellation of his concert tour. In New York City, Rachmaninov had barely unpacked his luggage from a transatlantic voyage when he and his daughters became sick. With debts to pay, the Russian composer left his sickbed against doctors’ orders in order to prepare for a 36-city recital tour and to finish an arrangement of The Star-spangled Banner. Bartók, meanwhile, was bedridden for 23 days in the Hungarian countryside, battling fever and a worrisome ear infection. Unable to speak, he wrote notes to his wife and doctor describing ‘sudden stabbing pains’ in his ears and the sensation of ‘small ants scratching and causing an irresistible itching in the depth of my ears’.
The three composers were sufferers of the Spanish flu, thought to be the deadliest influenza pandemic in human history, causing between 50 and 100 million deaths worldwide. Though they and their families recovered, other musicians, including composer Parry and members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, were not so fortunate. Accounts of the pandemic of 191820 suggest eerie parallels with the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020, with its impact reaching across the music world. As well as stricken performers, there were darkened theatres and disrupted tours – alongside flashes of creative response.
Unlike Rachmaninov, a 27-year-old Prokofiev arrived in New York in late 1918 without any firm concert dates. He paced his Manhattan apartment and checked the latest casualty figures. ‘I am gripped by complete panic about the inf luenza,’ he fretted, in one of several diary entries about the virus. ‘To flee from Bolshevism only to die from the Spanish flu in New York! What a morbid joke!’ A noted hypochondriac, Prokofiev dodged the virus.
Less fortunate was Hubert Parry. The composer of Jerusalem had spent that summer cycling near his home on the Sussex coast when he developed a cyst around where the bicycle seat had pinched his skin; it became infected and he developed septicaemia. For most of September, the 70-year-old Parry was confined to his bed. The south of England was home to
British, US and Canadian military bases, where soldiers may have transmitted the virus through the general population, according to Parry biographer Jeremy Dibble. With the composer’s immune system compromised, he contracted influenza and died on 7 October. His funeral took place a week later at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Unlike the coronavirus, mortality rates in 1918 were highest among young men. In Philadelphia, which saw nearly 20,000 deaths, three Philadelphia Orchestra musicians, ages 17 to 21, died within three weeks. ‘All three played second violin, and all were young and promising musicians,’ reported the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Their places in the orchestra have been filled.’ (The orchestra’s schedule was extended a week so that surviving musicians could be paid for a full 28-week season.)
Elsewhere, Charles Griffes, a gifted American composer, collapsed after a Carnegie Hall performance of his music in December 1919 and died, aged 35, four months later. Though officially stated as influenza-empyema, Spanish flu is often cited as a cause. Other victims in the arts included the French writer Apollinaire and Austrian painters Klimt and Schiele, the latter known for his portrait of Schoenberg.
Bans on public gatherings led to concert cancellations throughout Europe and the
United States in autumn of 1918. The fledgling Cleveland Orchestra was weeks away from its inaugural performance when Cleveland closed all schools, theatres, churches and other gathering places. A Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic bemoaned the orchestra’s ‘enforced limbo’ and predicted that ‘when the season finally does get underway, it will be a sadly dislocated affair’. The flu ban was soon lifted, however, and the debut concert, on 11 December, conducted by Nikolai Sokoloff, was met with critical and audience accolades.
In both London and New York, public health officials sought to quarantine the sick while controversially allowing theatres and concert halls to stay open, provided they were deemed clean and well ventilated. New York theatre patrons were forbidden to sneeze, cough or smoke; several venues were closed for failing to meet the health code. The London Palladium sprayed a ‘germ killer’ between performances.
‘In the city of New York, so far, the specter of the Hispanic malady has had little effect on concert givers,’ the New York American reported in October 1918, ‘though the dread of contagion is keeping many music lovers at home or out of doors.’ Indeed, the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera continued their activities while Carnegie Hall saw only a few cancellations.
On 12 October the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra arrived in New York for a planned 50-city tour of North America. The ensemble, led by André Messager, gave two concerts at the Metropolitan Opera House before the flu claimed the life of a musician, violinist
Eduardo Fernandez, whose body had to be transported back to the French capital.
Many subsequent concerts were cancelled or postponed as cities from Milwaukee to Spokane banned public gatherings. The musicians waited out the bans by making a series of recordings for Columbia Records, featuring works by Bizet, Saint-saëns and Delibes. An advertisement touted ‘the only phonograph records on which you can hear the exquisite music of the French Symphony Orchestra’.
Concert tours were also halted in Europe, including in Switzerland, where more than half of the population was infected by three waves of the flu. The day after Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat got its September 1918 premiere in Lausanne, the musicians, actors and stagehands began experiencing symptoms of la grippe. Stravinsky recovered in a week, but a muchanticipated L’histoire tour was scrapped.
While the coronavirus has yielded outpourings of communal expression – from opera arias sung from Italian balconies to videos of stitched-together orchestral pieces filmed in isolation – the 1918-19 pandemic did not produce a large commemorative legacy.
One exception, however, is Milhaud’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet and Piano which he began in Rio de Janeiro and which ends with a dirge for the victims of the pandemic. Songwriters also penned novelty songs and ragtime numbers including ‘Spanish
Flu Blues’, ‘The Microbe’ and ‘Oh, You Flu!’, partly in an effort to lift spirits.
And in Spain, life mirrored art. The epidemic was nicknamed the ‘Naples Soldier,’ after one of the numbers in José Serrano’s zarzuela La canción del olvido. The reason: the virus was said to be as catchy as one of the numbers in the musical, which is set around the Bay of Naples.
Perhaps because the Spanish flu was suffered largely in private, there were no grand choral requiems or symphonic laments for the victims of the virus. More characteristic were the seemingly indirect responses, such as The
Love for Three Oranges, Prokofiev’s 1919 opera that centres on a hypochondriac prince. Karol Szymanowski, on holiday at a Black Sea resort, claimed that his opera King Roger ‘sprang into my mind one sleepless, “Spanish” night’, a reference to the flu. His librettist Jaros aw Iwaszkiewicz later wrote how the ‘calming yet disquieting’ character of the sea ‘became cast into the music.’
By late 1919, as cases of flu were abating, the remaining performance bans were lifted. A November 1919 report in Musical America predicted that the 1919-20 season would be ‘one of record-breaking proportions,’ as wartime restrictions ended and normal concert life started to resume. New aesthetic trends were taking shape, including neoclassicism, dadaism and futurism.
But it would be the blues, the perennial soundtrack of hard times, that expressed the moment best. The ‘1919 Influenza Blues’ warns listeners that the virus did not distinguish between one’s wealth, class or origin.
North and south, east and west,
It can be seen,
It killed the rich, killed the poor,
It’s gonna kill just a little more,
If you don’t turn away from the shame. Though medical and economic realities have changed over the last century, the unflinchingly direct song strikes a familiar chord in our current times.